CHS Blog

Mental Health and Media Content

Mental Health and Media Content
Posted on August 10, 2017 by CHS

Common Sense Media reports that while the research about the correlation between violence in the media and aggressive behavior in children is mixed, it is also noted that the research in this area is very limited and out-of-date. There is almost no research on violence in online content, such as social media or online video games. From the research, Common Sense Media estimates that approximately 90% of movies include some depictions of violence, 68% of video games include some violence, as do 60% of TV shows and 15% of music videos. In addition, advertisements for video games, movies, and music that contain explicit content and are rated for adults are often shown on programs with significant numbers of child viewers. This means that the content is marketed to children through these ads or through cross-promotional products using toys or foods. Media scholars Brad Bushman and Rowell Huesmann summarize the impact of violent content on children: “Children who watch violent movies and TV or who play violent video games imitate the aggressive scripts they see; become more condoning of violence, start to believe the world is a more hostile place, become emotionally desensitized to violence, and lose empathy for victims. The violence they see justifies to them their own violent acts; the violence they see arouses them; and the violence they see cues aggressive ideas for them.” While Bushman and Huesmann note that even though the size of the effect of violence in the media on violent behavior in children is relatively small, this small effect still presents a large public health concern when considered at the population-level. Additionally, longitudinal studies show a cumulative effect, where exposure to violent content over a long period of time can have an impact on aggression, particularly in children with other risk factors and few protective factors.  

“Children exposed to violent programming at a young age have a higher tendency for violent and aggressive behavior later in life than children who are not so exposed.” - American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, American Psychological Association, American Medical Association, American Academy of Family Physicians, & American Psychiatric Association, 2000

Recommendations: The American Academy of Pediatrics has created a list of tips to help parents navigate the rapidly changing media and technology landscape:

  • Make your own family media use plan. Media should be beneficial and work within your family values and parenting style. When used thoughtfully and appropriately, media can enhance daily life. But when used inappropriately or without thought, media can displace many important activities such as face-to-face interaction, family-time, outdoor-play, exercise, unplugged downtime, and sleep. Make your family plan at HealthyChildren.org/MediaUsePlan.  
  • Treat media as you would any other environment in your child's life. The same parenting guidelines apply in both real and virtual environments. Set limits; kids need and expect them. Know your children's friends, both online and off. Know what platforms, software, and apps your children are using, what sites they are visiting on the web, and what they are doing online.
  • Set limits and encourage playtime. Media use, like all other activities, should have reasonable limits. Unstructured and offline play stimulates creativity. Make unplugged playtime a daily priority, especially for very young children. And—don't forget to join your children in unplugged play whenever possible.
  • Families who play together, learn together. Family participation is also great for media activities—it encourages social interactions, bonding, and learning. Play a video game with your kids. It's a good way to demonstrate quality sportsmanship and gaming etiquette. You will have the opportunity to introduce and share your own life experiences and perspectives—and guidance—as you play the game.
  • Be a good role model. Teach and model kindness and good manners online. Because children are great mimics, limit your own media use. In fact, you'll be more available for, and connected with, your children if you're interacting, hugging and playing with them rather than simply staring at a screen. 
  • Know the value of face-to-face communication. Very young children learn best through two-way communication. Engaging in back-and-forth "talk time" is critical for language development. Conversations can be face-to-face or, if necessary, by video chat with a traveling parent or far-away grandparent. Research has shown that it's that "back-and-forth conversation" that improves language skills—much more so than "passive" listening or one-way interaction with a screen.
  • Limit digital media for your youngest family members. Avoid digital media for toddlers younger than 18 to 24 months other than video chatting. For children 18 to 24 months, watch digital media with them because they learn from watching and talking with you. Limit screen use for preschool children, ages 2 to 5, to just 1 hour a day of high-quality programing, and watch it with them so you can help them learn from what they're seeing. See Healthy Digital Media Use Habits for Babies, Toddlers & Preschoolers.
  • Create tech-free zones. Keep family mealtimes, other family and social gatherings, and children's bedrooms screen free. Turn off televisions that you aren't watching, because background TV can get in the way of face-to-face time with kids. Recharge devices overnight—outside your child's bedroom to help children avoid the temptation to use them when they should be sleeping. These changes encourage more family time, healthier eating habits, and better sleep, all critical for children's wellness.
  • Don't use technology as an emotional pacifier. Media can be very effective in keeping kids calm and quiet, but it should not be the only way they learn to calm down. Children need to be taught how to identify and handle strong emotions, come up with activities to manage boredom, or calm down through breathing, talking about ways to solve the problem, and finding other strategies for channeling emotions.
  • Apps for kids – do your homework. More than 80,000 apps are labeled as educational, but little research has demonstrated their actual quality. Products pitched as "interactive" should require more than "pushing and swiping." Look to organizations like Common Sense Media for reviews about age-appropriate apps, games, and programs to guide you in making the best choices for your children.
  • It's OK for your teen to be online. Online relationships are part of typical adolescent development. Social media can support teens as they explore and discover more about themselves and their place in the grown-up world. Just be sure your teen is behaving appropriately in both the real and online worlds. Many teens need to be reminded that a platform's privacy settings do not make things actually "private" and that images, thoughts, and behaviors teens share online will instantly become a part of their digital footprint indefinitely. Keep lines of communication open and let them know you're there if they have questions or concerns.
  • Warn children about the importance of privacy and the dangers of predators and sexting. Teens need to know that once content is shared with others, they will not be able to delete or remove it completely, and this includes texting of inappropriate pictures. They also may not know about, or choose to use, privacy settings. They need to be warned that sex offenders often use social networking, chat rooms, e-mail, and online gaming to contact and exploit children.
  • Remember: Kids will be kids. Kids will make mistakes using media. Try to handle errors with empathy and turn a mistake into a teachable moment. But some indiscretions, such as sexting, bullying, or posting self-harm images, may be a red flag that hints at trouble ahead. Parents must carefully observe their children's behaviors and, if needed, enlist supportive professional help, including the family pediatrician.

Resources: There are several good sources of information for research, parenting tips and strategies, and advocacy in the area of children and the media:

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